It's 2022. America is beset with a fundamentalist takeover, terrorism at the Oscars, mind-altering drugs in the water, revolutionary art and a godlike hand that emerges from the sky in a divine hallucination. This isn't the stuff of street corner lunatics but the latest work from ur-alternate reality gamers 42 Entertainment and Nine Inch Nails'Trent Reznor—an ARG in anticipation of the latter's new album, Year Zero. The saga began in February when fans at shows on the group's European tour noticed specific letters on a NIN tour T-shirt had been highlighted. Together they spelled out "I am trying to believe," which, when you added a .com, was a live website. USB drives containing song leaks from the album also appeared in bathrooms and around venues. Clues, like the image of a ghostly hand in the spectrographic analysis of an MP3, emerged, and around the world the internet hive mind is deconstructing secret JPEGs, sussing out story leads, calling phone numbers and reading the Book of Jeremiah.
At least a dozen domain names are connected to the effort, and additional clues appeared in a mural in London. Even the relatively clueless can participate; the album's single, "Survivalism," is posted on the band's site for remixing, and the "Open Source Resistance" portion of the story encourages fan-created artistic strikes against the totalitarian state. Reznor himself is at pains to make clear that this is art, not commerce. In a posting at the official fan club forum, he wrote, "The term 'marketing' sure is a frustrating one for me at the moment. What you are now starting to experience IS 'year zero.' It's not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record—it IS the art form . . . and we're just getting started." At press time, what Reznor has called "the dying record industry" was up to its usual dying tricks; the Recording Industry Association of America had issued takedown notices to sites hosting the artist-issued MP3s.